Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review - Skyjack - The Hunt for D.B. Cooper

Skyjack-The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray (2012) - There are few crimes in American history that have grabbed the imagination the way the hijacking of an airplane by a man known only as "Dan Cooper".  Through a mistake "Dan Cooper" became "D.B. Cooper" and that is how history remembers him.  Cooper hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305 out of Portland Oregon in November of 1971.  He released the passengers, extorted $200,000 (worth just over a million dollars today), had the plane take back off and parachuted out of the plane into history.  No one knows who "Cooper" really was or what happened to him.  Some of the money was recovered well away from the believed parachute area.  It remains the only unsolved air hijacking in American aviation history.

"Skyjack" is the work of  "New York Magazine" editor Geoffrey Gray.  Gray's work has appeared in the "New York Times Magazine" and "Sports Illustrated". He gets drawn into the story when an investigator comes to him with a tip.  That tip will lead him into the bizarre and twisted world of Cooper theorists and the subculture where they reside.  He will get a look at FBI files that have been tucked away for decades.

With that background you would expect an exciting and interesting book.  You'd be wrong.  Gray can't seem to decide if the book is about Cooper, about the theorist sub-culture or himself.  Potential identities for the hijacker get thrown into the story seemingly at random, disappear and then turn back up.  It's clear that Gray got caught up in the paranoia and mental fog that surrounds so many of the people in the story.  He is quickly not the clear minded journalist trying to shine a light into the dark corners of a story.  Instead he dives head first into the murky waters.

The end result is book that leaves you feeling unsatisfied.  Nothing particularly revealing is laid out here.  The author simply becomes another befuddled character in a story that is over flowing with the same.  If you don't know much about Cooper there are a few interesting notes scattered through the story.  The rest is just a vague and wandering story without a sufficient resolution.  It could have been so much more.

Rating - ** Not Impressed

Monday, August 18, 2014

Movie Review - The Purge

The Purge (2013) - In a new middle-of-the Apocalypse America the "New Founding Fathers" have instituted a new way to deal with the negative emotions of modern day life.  One day a year, for 12 hours, all laws are suspended and all emergency services are shut down.  For the 12 hours of the "purge" everyone is on their own.  In fact it is a cynical method of lowering the population and allowing the upper socio-economic classes to attack the poor.  The movie tracks one well to do family who ends up harboring a poor black man being pursued by a band of upper class psychopaths.

Let's get this done upfront.  This movie is odious.  The script is idiotic, the characters (as they inevitably do in slasher films) insist on doing THE STUPIDEST POSSIBLE THINGS AT ALL TIMES, plus there's the usual batch of horror cliche situations and characters.  The concepts of the movie are vile as well.  That a government might do such a thing is a common enough trope in fiction.  It might actually have been an interesting movie if we had been given a struggle between the ideologies expressed here.  But we don't.  The movie glories in the atrocities, the violence and the gore.  The family at the center of the story survives more through luck than anything else. Even the tacked on "moral" at the ending is achieved with one final spurt of blood.

What may be even more horrifying than the movie itself is that people flocked to see it.  "The Purge" cost around three million dollars ($3,000,000) to make.  It's domestic gross was sixty four million dollars ($64,000,000) and it added another twenty four million ($24,000,000) in the rest of the world.  There is no surprise in the fact that a sequel came out this year.  It's done quite well as well.

To the folks who saw it when it first came out I can give a pass.  To the folks who knew what it was going to be and those who went and saw it more than once (you know some folks did), I say this - what the hell is the matter with you?

Do the world a favor, don't put any more money in the pockets of the people who made this atrocity.

Rating - 1 *   I SO wanted to give this a "No Star" rating but that would be over the top.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review - The Garden of the Stone

The Garden of the Stone - Victoria Strauss (2010) - Years ago the world had been divided between those with the power of the Mind, the Gifted, and those who worked in the physical world, the Ungifted, whose world was known as that of the Hand.  The Gifted kept control of the rest through the supernatural powers of the Stone.  A prophecy said that a man would come and use the Stone to reunite the Mind and the Hand.  When Bron finally came he did the unexpected.  He stole the Stone and disappeared.  (All of this action is laid out in the previous book to this one, "Arm of the Stone").

This book picks up years later when Bron's daughter Cariad, a powerful empath and assassin must infiltrate the Fortress that once held the Stone.  The prophecy that predicted Bron's arrival also predicts his return.  The problem facing the prophecy is that a sworn enemy of astounding power is waiting for Bron.  Waiting to destroy him and take total control of the world.  Cariad must discover the enemy's secret and destroy him to protect a father she never knew.

Like any good fantasy novel, trying to explain the story in just a few words is very difficult.  Victoria Strauss has created a world of great complexity and placed an equally intricate story in the middle of that world.  Her characters are beautifully crafted.  The story lines are woven with skill.  The end result is a story that carries you along with great energy.  At the end I wished that I could immediately start reading not only the other book in the series and then start looking at Strauss's other work.  It's the kind of book where you're disappointed when you hit the end.

Rating - **** Recommended

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams


I'm not even sure where to begin with this.  I was a huge Robin Williams fan.  I loved the high tempo comedy routines, I was stunned by the depth that he brought to his dramatic roles (comedians can be astounding talents at dramatic roles) and I was very happy to discover that he was a fellow Episcopalian.  Lots of entertainers that I admire have died over the years of my life.  For whatever reason, this one feels different.

It wasn't always that way.

I remember vividly when "Mork and Mindy" debuted in September of 1978.  There's was a lot of talk about this show.  I was not impressed.  It sounded like the dumbest idea I'd ever heard and I was (big surprise) quite vocal about what a dumb idea it was.  After watching it for a few episodes I fell for Williams's quirky style and gentle hearted character.  It also didn't hurt that Pam Dawber was easy on the eyes.  In the end I was probably right about the concept because it ran it's course very quickly.  But when the show was good, it could be amazing.

That is the simplest summation of Robin Williams's career.  Some things just didn't have the depth to go the distance.  But when he was good?  Oh my.

I'm not sure I can even choose my favorite Robin Williams role.  What a pleasant surprise he was in "The World According to Garp".  I knew he could be something special after watching him in "Moscow on the Hudson".  "Good Morning Viet Nam" isn't a particularly good movie but Williams was amazing.  I have to imagine that it is a favorite especially among radio DJs.  The first half of the movie is mostly about the radio and it's stunningly funny.  "Dead Poet's Society", "Cadillac Man", "Awakenings", "The Fisher King", "Hook", "Aladdin", "Mrs. Doubtfire", "The Birdcage" (THE FREAKING BIRDCAGE!!!!), "Good Will Hunting", "What Dreams May Come", "Patch Adams".  Even in the small role he had as Teddy Roosevelt in the "Night in the Museum" movies he was fun to watch.

Not all of those are great movies.  There were plenty of movies on his filmography which are pretty forgettable.  Curiously his comedy movies tend to fall flat for me.  The general consensus is that his high energy comic style just didn't translate well.  "Aladdin" was the right vehicle for that style.

Robin Williams always felt like someone who would be a blast to just hang with casually.  It just felt like he would be perfectly comfortable in the backyard with a few friends.  At the end of the night there would be a big hug.  And a fall down funny parting line.  Followed by more hysterical commentary the whole way to the car.  And then a few more tossed out the window as he drove away.

That's the way it felt to me at least.

Which is probably why the death of this entertainer that I never met feels so personal.

I will miss you Robin.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Movie Review - The Descendants

The Descendants (2011) - Matt King (George Clooney) lived a pretty quiet life most days.  An attorney who specializes in real estate he faces a big family decision about a huge tract of prime land in Hawaii that could make them all rich.  At the same time his oldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) has become something of a behavior problem.  Then his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie),  is seriously injured in a boating accident.  Suddenly Matt has to face issues that he has ignored.  What he discovers about his life will profoundly upsetting.  As he tries to draw his family back together he will discover even more about himself.

This review is a bit of cheat.  I did a review of this movie in December of  2012 ("In Flight Movies").  On a trip to Germany I got to see a bunch of movies.  This was the only one I liked.  I've been telling Mrs. Phlipside that she should see it ever since.  As with "Crossing Delancey" I was a little concerned that it might not hold up to my memory.

No worries.

This was an intentional change of pace role for Clooney.  He normally plays very together, confident characters.  Matt King is a quiet man who doesn't think much beyond the day to day details of his life.  So when the wheels start to come off his life, he is completely unprepared to handle it all.  Clooney brings a great touch to the transition as Matt begins to "grasp the nettle firmly" (as the old saying goes).  He is just lost at the beginning and reacts at a very basic level.  When confronted with the final insult to his world view of the life he lives, King just takes off running.  There's nothing left in him mentally.  There is only physical reaction.  Clooney's face and awkward gate is perfect at that moment.  It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

While this is a story about Matt King, Clooney gets some wonderful support from the younger members of the cast.  Woodley is marvelous at the older daughter, Alexandra, who will never get the chance to repair her relationship with her mother.  Amara Miller does a nice job with the smaller role of little sister Scottie.  But real kudos go to Nick Krause as Alex's friend from school, Sid.  When you first meet Sid he looks like the comic relief.  Instead the script (based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings) allows Sid to be both funny, charming and profound.  In many ways it is Sid that provides the family with the place to put their feet as they try to recover.  Special nods to Beau Bridges for his work as Cousin Hugh, Robert Forster as Elizabeth's father, Scott Thorson and to Patricia Hastie as Elizabeth.  She spends the vast majority of the movie unmoving in a hospital bed.  We only see her "alive" in a few memory clips.

My family asked me what kind of movie this was.  Comedy?  Drama?  Yes.  It is a warm and funny movie that deals with very serious issues in a very serious manner.

It was every bit as good the second time around.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Review - A World On Fire

A World On Fire by Amanda Foreman (2012) - We all learned about the American Civil War.  Lincoln, the Confederacy, Gettysburg, slavery and Appomattox.  When we got a little older we may have learned a little more, that it wasn't quite so cut and dried and that the war was an enormous bloodbath that forever changed who we are as a nation.  With this book, your education on the Civil War will take the next leap forward. (a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, and educated as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College and with master’s and doctorate degrees in history from Oxford University) tells the stunning story of the importance of England and English politics in the final outcome of the war.  If England had chosen to recognize the Confederacy as a nation we would live in a very different world today.  The interplay between the two nations, the United States and the United Kingdom, was intense enough that an additional war between them almost happened twice during the years of the Civil War.
 Foreman tells the story through the lives of a wide variety of people ranging from the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston to the British minister in the United States (we didn't warrant a full ambassador at that point in history) Lord Lyons to a variety of common Englishman and itinerant soldiers who would volunteer on both sides of the conflict.  (In fact, Henry Morton Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, served on BOTH sides of the war and eventually in the U.S. Navy as well!)

In the long run there was no chance that the Confederacy could win the win outright.  Lacking the manpower and the industrial base of the North, the Confederacy believed that superior culture and fighting spirit could carry the day.  It was a vain belief.  They had only two hopes.  To drag the war on until the political will of the North was destroyed, or for some major power (England or France most likely) to recognize the Confederacy as a nation.  The first very nearly came true.  In the end Lincoln's generals (most of whom were awful) won just enough, and at just the right time, to keep the war limping along.  The South still believed that "King Cotton" would bring England in on their side.

England was divided on the subject (the French chose to play a delaying game, waiting for England to move first) and the fight for English popular support sounds very much at home in the 21st Century.  On the one hand there is a strong resonance in the English spirit toward those who fight for liberty.  When the South could keep the discourse focused there they did very well with English politics.  At the same time England had relatively recently turned its back on slavery in all forms.  They were rabidly opposed to any group that continued the slave culture.  Confederate agents implied that if left to its own devices the "peculiar institution" would slowly fade away in an independent South.  This was a political lie of monstrous proportion.  The economy of the Confederacy could not function without slaves and the ruling classes saw no reason to try.  In the end the English politicians would realize this and finally close the door on the Confederacy.

Quite simply, this is the best book I've read this year.  I have always been interested in the Civil War and having moved to the heart of the conflict recently (just outside Richmond, VA) my interest has fired up even more.  I was vaguely familiar with the role that England had played in the Civil War.  My understanding of the political side of the war is now far deeper and more detailed than ever before.  The terrible toll of the war has been brought back to me in great detail as well.  Foreman is masterful in her storytelling.  Each of the characters (and there are a boatload of them!) come alive for the reader.  The vain, the long suffering, the bombastic, the idealistic, the devious and the outright deranged move smoothly across through the tale of this terrible conflict.  Characters you think you know well, like Lincoln, get finer detailing and depth.  Others you have never heard of before will capture your attention as they struggle through their own terrifying histories.  Men's careers and lives will grow, blossom or be destroyed as they attempt to make a passage through the politics of two nations with common heritages and completely separate views of the world.

For the Civil War buff this is a must read.  I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in American or English history.  And if you enjoy a story well told, you can't go far wrong with this one.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Movie Review - Crossing Delancey

Crossing Delancey (1988) Izzy(Amy Irving) is a bright and talented young woman working at a low paying job that she loves coordinating events at a small independent bookstore in New York City.  She thinks her life is ideal but her grandmother begs to differ.  With a little help from the marriage broker a date is set up between Izzy and Sam (Peter Reigert).  Sam runs the family pickle business and Izzy doesn't see him as the man of her dreams.  Instead she's focused on a self centered local author and the life she thinks she "ought" to be living.  Modern life meets traditional Jewish culture in a charming romantic comedy.

I have loved this movie from the first instant I saw it.  When I finished watching "Marty" (review last week) I immediately thought of the parallels between the two.  Strong ethnic story lines, family pressure to marry, counter pressures from other sources and ultimately the conflict between who we are and who we think we ought to be.  The two movies also share a deep well of humanity in their story telling, a warm heart at the center of it all.

What "Marty" lacks is a character like Izzy's Bubbie.  Played to perfection by career Yiddish theater actress Reizl Boyzik, she steals any scene she's in.  Which is perfect, because Bubbie is the center of any scene she's in too.  Between the script and Reigert's work Sam is also letter perfect.  He never slides into caricature or let's Sam become one dimensional.  It would be easy to let that character just slide by but the movie doesn't let it happen.  Irving also brings a perfectly believable Izzy to the screen.  One who is going through the motions to please Bubbie at first but slowly sees the real man in Sam rather than the slick writer.  It's interesting that Irving gets star billing but is only (in my opinion) the third best actor in the cast.

I won't tell you this is a great movie.  The script has several completely pointless characters and scenes in it.  Adapted from a stage play I wonder if Susan Sandler who wrote both the play and the screenplay loved them so much she couldn't bring herself to cut them.  There's an unexamined "friend with benefits" character who lives upstairs from Izzy who is expendable (except you'd lose one of Reigert's best lines), a rather extended scene of a bris ceremony that adds little and a sauna scene that offers nothing other than a glimpse of Irving's breasts.  The movie would have been even better if she had.  One character gets a big buildup (Marilyn, played by Suzzy Roche of the Roches) then just disappears.  The good news is that what's good in the script (Izzy, Sam and Bubbie) is good enough that you won't care too much about what's not so good.

I talk about this movie a lot when I want to talk about "little movies", movies with smaller budgets that are closely focused on story and character.  It's been a few years since I last saw "Crossing Delancey" and I was afraid that I'd built it up too much in memory.

Instead I was rewarded with the same joy I remembered.  One of my personal favorites.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

From My Shelves - Lewis Grizzard

("From My Shelves" is an occasional series that looks at personal favorites from my personal collections)

The various works of author, columnist and humorist Lewis Grizzard - It's just over 20 years since Lewis Grizzard died at age 47.  I'm not sure how I "discovered" Grizzard.  My best bet is that I was looking for something else and stumbled on the delightful titles of his books:

  • Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You: A Good Beer Joint Is Hard to Find and Other Facts of Life 

    • Won't You Come Home, Billy Bob Bailey?: An Assortment of Home-Cooked Journalism for People Who Wonder Why Clean Underwear Doesn't Grow on Trees
    • Don't Sit Under The Grits Tree With Anyone Else But Me 
    • They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat 
    • If Love Were Oil, I'd Be About A Quart Low 
    • Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself 
    • Shoot Low Boys - They're Riding Shetland Ponies 
    • My Daddy Was A Pistol and I'm a Son of a Gun 
    • When My Love Returns From The Ladies Room, Will I Be Too Old To Care? 
    • Don't Bend Over In the Garden, Granny - You Know Them Taters Got Eyes 
    That's not all of them but it gives you a taste.  Grizzard began as a sports writer and editor, rising quickly up the ladder at the Atlanta Journal, where he was installed as sports editor at age 23.  The Chicago Sun-Times then lured him to their staff.  The problem was that first and foremost, Lewis was a southern boy.  Never happy in the Windy City, he eventually returned to Atlanta.

    The good news for us is that Grizzard kept up a steady stream of columns and stories, sharing all the events of his life with his particular brand of self mocking humor.  These are the work of an author who understands his trade.

    The funny stories can make you laugh until you cry.  The sad ones will make you cry till your heart breaks.  If I had to pick a single book as my all time favorite, it would be his paean to his father, "My Daddy Was A Pistol, And I'm A Son of a Gun".  I'm not sure there is a greater or more heartfelt tribute by a son to his father written anywhere, any time, by anyone.

    You can read his books when you've only got a few minutes to spare because many of them are made up of columns.  Or you can decide to dedicate an afternoon or day to this great American humorist and let him teach you things about life you never thought about before you turned a page.

    Grizzard stands squarely in the tradition of Mark Twain.  That's pretty high flown company.  Lewis Grizzard is that kind of writer.  Quintessentially American, with a sharp eye, a way with words and a willingness to make himself the butt of the joke.

    Go find his books today.

    Monday, July 28, 2014

    Movie Review - Marty

    Marty (1955) - A thirty-something Italian butcher getspressure from every direction about getting married.  Try as he will, he never seems to find the right girl.  Until one night, in a dance hall he meets a young woman who had given up on ever finding love as well.  A warm and wonderful story about people who had decided they didn't have what it took for love.

    The posters for this movie were awful but I like
    this one because it captures the two
    most important moments of the story.
    Paddy Chayefsky adapted his TV script of a few years earlier into the movie version.  Ernest Borgnine stars in the title role.  Up to this time he had played mostly bad guys and Borgnine credits this movie with changing his career forever.  This is such a warm and gentle picture that it's the perfect follow up to the intense emotional ordeal of last week's movie (Long Day's Journey Into Night).  Marty is just a nice guy.  The kind of nice guy that so many woman say they want but all too often turn up their noses when they meet one.  He hangs out with a bunch of sad sack friends who haven't figured out that their current plan ("What you want to do tonight?  I dunno, what you wanna do?") is getting them precisely nowhere.  Problems arise when Marty tries to change his life with Clara (Betsy Blair).  His friends object and his mother suddenly feels like she's about to be replaced.  The only question is this - will Marty stay true to himself or not?

    In addition to being a great, little film (Oscar winner for Best Picture AND only 90 minutes long.  Shortest Best Film winner.  Also Best Director, Best Leading Man and Best Screenplay) "Marty" is a treasure trove for the movie trivia lover.  First time a director won Best Director in the director's film debut (Delbert Mann).  First film to spend more on the Oscar campaign than the actual production budget.  Only the second film to win the Best Picture Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes ("Lost Weekend" was the first).  It was the film debut for Jerry Orbach (uncredited) plus featured actors who would become familiar on television in the '60s - Jerry Paris as Marty's cousin (Rob and Laura's neighbor on "The Dick Van Dyke Show") and Frank Sutton as one of Marty's seedier friends, Ralph (Sgt. Carter on "Gomer Pyle, USMC").

    But that is simply bonus material.  The script is compact without losing an ounce of warmth and humanity.  The characters are believable, with Borgnine's Marty being the true gem. The characters of Marty's mom and aunt are delightful (maybe in part because I've older ladies just like them). It's the kind of movie that makes you wonder why you'd never seen it before (or if you have seen it before, whats taken you so long to see it again)

    Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

    Wednesday, July 23, 2014

    Book Review - What It Was Like

    What It Was Like -  Peter Seth (2014) - In the summer of 1968 a young man takes a job at a summer camp in Upstate New York.  He will enter Columbia University that fall on a scholarship and needs to make some pocket money.  It is at camp that he meets Rachel Prince.  She's the unattainable queen of Camp Mooncliff.  Beautiful but remote.  The narrator (we never learn his name) tries anyway and wins her heart.  It begins a roller coaster ride of love and betrayal that leads to prison for him.

    Don't worry, I haven't given anything away.  You'll find out he's in prison on the very first page.

    The English have this wonderful concept of the "busman's holiday".  In simplest form it means that you spend your vacation doing something related or similar to what you do for a living.  So a busman (bus driver) would go on a bus tour, a teacher would take classes, etc.  As a youth minister, reading this book was something of a busman's holiday for me.  It's about teenagers and the convoluted lives they can lead when life runs a little too far ahead of their ability to cope.

    Sadly, this means that there was very little mystery about "what happens next" for me.  Within a hundred pages I knew the ending, at least in broad strokes.  The only question was whether it was going to be Romeo and Juliet, or Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.  Consequently most of my reading time consisted of watching the adults in the story screw up the lives of these two young people over and over and over.  The camp director, Rachel's parents, the narrator's parents, each every one of them failed these young people repeatedly.  Any of them could have averted the ending but chose not to do so.  From my point of view it was simply infuriating.

    (Some folks may be surprised to see I include the narrator's parents in the list of failures.  They are presented as nice if somewhat ineffectual folks just trying to do the best they can.  I don't deny any of that.  At the same time one of them needed to sit down and have a serious talk with their son as his life began to spin out of control.  Instead they sat back, shook their heads mournfully and did nothing.  In choosing their comfort over the needs of their child they failed their son just as surely as the vindictive evilness of Rachel's parents failed her.)

    The authorial conceit of never naming the narrator could have become overly cute or burdensome.  Credit to Peter Seth's writing skill that I very nearly didn't notice it.  It wasn't till I tried to describe the action to my wife and couldn't come up with the boy's name that it struck me.

    For me, "What It Was Like" didn't break any real new ground.  The story here is all too familiar.  Emotionally immature/broken teens desperately search for love, connection and stability.  Poor decisions are made because they lack the background to understand what they are doing and they lack the parental support to gain it safely.  Most kids get through that phase with just some minor emotional scars.  Some don't make it through at all.  It's just sad, depressing reading that's all too close to home.

    At the same time, Seth's story telling skill is highly polished.  The story is easily readable and carries the reader along quite effortlessly.  While the story may have dragged at me, the storytelling kept me going.  Hundreds of pages of personal and professional agony that I still wanted to plow through.  I'm not sure there's any higher praise you can offer an author.

    I wanted to be wrong.  Seth kept me reading until I found out.

    "What It Was Like" is due on the bookshelves September 2, 2014 from The Story Plant.

    This one is a tough call for me.  The story is only a 3 star for me personally but the writing deserves a little better than that.  So somewhere between a "Worth A Look" and "Recommended".

    Rating - ***1/2